I have come to look forward to the variety of repertoire often presented by Mark Eager and the Welsh Sinfonia, often mixing more familiar works with other, less-prominent compositions. This evening’s short and simple concert offered a programme in this very vein: four 20th- and 21st-century composers with somewhat different yet complementary styles.

The Welsh Sinfonia © Gavin Dando
The Welsh Sinfonia
© Gavin Dando

Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks chamber concerto was played with an immediate, sour bite to the sound, particularly in the third movement, and there was a ready roughness in the strings that was thoroughly enjoyable. Furthermore, the rhythmic intricacies in the second movement were handled with an effortless fluidity by the woodwind and there were moments of fine blending between Lucy Simmonds (cello) and the leader, Robin Stowell, in the finale. At times, however, it felt as though the orchestra had become somewhat caught up in the smaller (though of course complex) rhythmic and metric details of the outer movements, which slightly distracted from the overall onward direction. But this is only a minor comment.

I was most looking forward to hearing two works by the Welsh Sinfonia’s composer in residence, Michael Csányi-Wills, having first come into contact with his music in January of this year. This evening’s concert featured two contrasting works by him, The Last Letter – a song, this evening played in an arrangement for chamber orchestra and solo cello – and L’Annunziata, a tango suite for strings.

The Last Letter is based on a brief and consciously final message written by the composer’s great-grandmother and left to her two children, Charles and Gabriella. Opening with a regular viola pulse, the other string parts enter one by one with a gently tortuous counterpoint that provide a pleasurably restless and shifting, yet nevertheless unobtrusive, backdrop to the soloist. The wistful, melancholic atmosphere of the orchestral introduction recalls the sound world of the last piece I heard of Csányi-Wills, On the Idle Hill of Summer. Whilst the cello part was often written quite high in its register, soloist Lucy Simmonds realised the line with a fine accuracy and sincerity. In addition, she played the return of the opening theme in the tenor register with a warm and rich tone.

The coarse attack that was apparent in Dumbarton Oaks also made its way into Csanyi-Wills’ tango suite. The angular theme that opened the outer movements was played with a satisfying and direct hacking and, in addition, Robin Stowell’s violin solo at the opening of the second movement was enjoyably rough. The interesting metric displacements within the contrapuntal passages of the first movement also came off with clarity and precision. Of further interest was Csányi-Wills’ seeming abandonment of a tango or continental style almost immediately within the second movement. The music seemed to shift into an allusion of something like a Michael Nyman film score from the last fifteen years, particularly in terms of texture (oscillating inner parts and a soaring top line against a pronounced and heavy double bass part). This seeming diversion from a tango style is by no means a slur on the work, but merely a point of interest. In fact, I find that it is somewhat fascinating in relation to the composer’s musical character and compositional tendencies that an air of pastoral melancholy should be apparent in those works of Csányi-Wills that I have heard thus far.

There were some genuinely touching moments during Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, particularly Stowell’s double-stopping just before the final orchestral tutti, which was perfectly poised and balanced against the orchestra. There were also some finely judged nuances that I hadn’t expected, which is a fine achievement for such a well-known piece as this. Nevertheless, whilst his final unaccompanied solo was as weightless and light as it ought to be, there was, for the most part, a little too much violin playing apparent in the performance and consequently George Meredith’s “silver chain of sound” just sometimes seemed to break as a consequence.

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring that concluded the concert opened with a fine, stratospheric solo violin from the leader and well-judged blending from Carl Grainger at the piano, who offered the richness of the low bass notes whilst minimising the instrument’s attack. The work was concluded excellently with well-judged blending and pace. In addition, the many sections of the work were merged together seamlessly by Eager and the Welsh Sinfonia.

Tonight’s concert was a gem: a selection of bite-sized works totalling barely over an hour, but that complemented one another very well.